If you find yourself on the receiving end of a PIP, look out -- it could be the first step in the firing process.
It sounds like such a positive, constructive approach: Give an employee with performance deficiencies a plan to become a more successful and valued contributor. Unfortunately, performance improvement plans (PIPs) are more often used as a manager's improvised device to sabotage a subordinate's future at the company, an "IED" on your career highway. What should you do in response?
I have seen hundreds of Performance Improvement Plans. Only a small fraction of them were genuinely intended to help the employee succeed. Those that did not result in a termination of employment a month or two later were more often given in a fairly regulated workplace, like a civil service or unionized environment. In contrast, the number of corporate, private industry employees I have seen who kep their jobs after getting a PIP I might count on one hand.
Overreaction is an unlikely problem, unless you quit. The PIP identifies you as underperforming, and it is most likely a precursor to your termination. In other words, you should consider it a written warning that you are likely to be terminated in the near future. If you disagree with the manager's evaluation and the terms of your improvement plan, you must protest. And, for the protest to be effective, it needs to be communicated to others, in writing.
If the facts supporting the negative evaluation are false, the PIP sets goals that you cannot achieve, or the motive of the manager is inappropriate, you'll need to set the record straight. Objectively, concisely, and truthfully, you need to put the employer on notice that what's been proposed to you is inconsistent with the accepted employment practice at your company, the law, or specific promises that have been made to you. You need to do this correctly, and you may well need help putting it together, perhaps from an experienced employment attorney or business coach. If you believe the motive for the PIP is some unethical or unlawful bias of the manager, then you may also need assistance to report or document these events somewhere outside the company. Realistically, you'll get one opportunity to protest, so you need to make it count.
Refusing to sign a PIP can be interpreted as insubordination or a voluntary quit. It is a better approach to sign under protest, adding a line that contains some version of these thoughts: a) I disagree with the content, b) I protest the PIP, c) my signature indicates only that I have received this document, not that I agree with it, and d) I intend to prepare a formal response.
Quitting is almost always the worst response to a PIP. In addition to losing your income, you could be compromising your potential legal claims and disqualifying yourself for unemployment benefits. You should always get the advice of an employment attorney before you take action that the employer might interpret as a voluntary quit or insubordination.
The good news is that effective protests against a PIP can work. I have seen PIPs dropped, employees reassigned to different managers or different jobs, H.R. interventions, managers subject to retraining, internal investigations, EEOC investigations, and negotiation of a mutual separation agreement, with substantial transition benefits for the employee. The point is, any of these alternatives is probably a better outcome than you will get simply by playing along and staying silent.